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Feminisms against Milei — and Beyond

In PerspectiveFrom local assemblies to the massive Encuentro and other forms of organization, it seems that the feminist movement was decisive in tipping the the balance in the first round of elections in Argentina. However, the electoral game is just one of the arenas of power. Feminisms - in the plural because we are diverse - are against Milei and beyond.

Argentina’s presidential elections have produced a seemingly unthinkable turnaround. Far-right candidate Javier Milei, who at the primaries had taken the largest share of the vote, was overtaken in the first round by Sergio Massa, with a runoff now scheduled for 19 November. To what extent did the feminist movement influence this astonishing reversal? From local assemblies to the massive Encuentro and other forms of organizing, it looks like the feminist movement was decisive in tipping the balance. However, the electoral game is just one of the arenas of power. Feminisms — in the plural because we are diverse —  are against Milei and beyond. 

The Electoral Scenario: Surprises and Questions 

The primaries results were surprising and raised questions about how to explain the swing to the right and how it might soon develop. A new form of fascism? Our local version of Bolsonarism? A protest vote against the government? Are we witnessing the rise of an unprecedented reactionary movement? 

Some voices highlighted the ideological element and the influence of social media in getting a candidate like Milei into the running for president. Others focused on the economic crisis and the economy’s apparently unstoppable inflationary trend, which they said had triggered a vote against the system. With depleted salaries in a country where 40.1 per cent of the population is poor and 36.8 per cent of workers are in the informal sector (National Statistics Institute, INDEC, 2023), the economic situation is critical and cannot be overlooked. Yet scapegoat explanations emerged. In some analyses, the “youth” — as if it were a single, monolithic social actor — was seen as responsible and, in some cases, even demonized as ignorant and irrational. Similarly, the poor were targeted and sold short as an uninformed class of people ready to choose an option that would ultimately have terrible effects on them. 

In this context, it seemed unlikely that Massa, currently Argentina’s economic minister, would be able to convince the electorate that his arrival in office would improve people’s lives. On October 22, however, the turnaround was realized. Massa (from the Unión por la Patria coalition) jumped from third to first place, receiving almost 37 per cent of the vote, putting Milei (leader of the far-right party La Libertad Avanza) in second position at 30 percent. Right-wing candidate Patricia Bullrich (Juntos por el Cambio) dropped out of contention with under 24 per cent. The same went for Peronist Juan Schiaretti (Hacemos por Nuestro País), who got around 6 per cent, and for the only left-wing candidate, Miryam Bregman (Frente de Izquierda y de los Trabajadores Unidad), on almost 6 per cent of the votes (La Nación, 2023).

So, what changed? There is no simple answer. We need to play our favorite wildcard: the one called “it is more complex than it seems”. The outcome can only be explained by a combination of factors. These include the role of governors, provincial party structures, and unions in activating the campaign: Unión por la Patria reversed the results of the primaries in 13 of 16 provinces, out of a total of 24 (El DiarioAr). We should also consider the effects of a number of economic measures — such as a bonus for public workers and an increase in minimum retirement pensions — which sought to mitigate the impacts of growing inflation. However, the 20 per cent devaluation of the Argentinean peso after the primary elections led to an inflation rate of 12.7 per cent in September, 138.3 per cent if compared year over year (National Statistics Institute, INDEC, 2023). Against this background, a gain in votes for Massa — a candidate who is having to navigate the economic storm even while he campaigns for office — seemed like an impossible prospect. Perhaps this is why some assume that Milei himself, with his self-contradictions and hate-filled speeches, contributed to a flow of votes towards the sitting economic minister. In this sense, the presidential public debate helped unmask the danger to social rights and the democratic system that Milei’s proposals represent. His contrarian speeches meant disrupting one of the — if not the — longest-lived social consensuses on the state violence and human rights violations of the last military dictatorship (1976–83).

The day after the general election saw Massa’s first press conference for foreign media correspondents. Mar Centenera, a journalist from El País, referred to the feminists campaigning against Vox, the Spanish far-right political party, and asked Massa for his opinion regarding the influence of the Argentinian feminist movement on the first-round results and the upcoming runoff. The candidate responded that the composition of his vote was similar to what had been seen in Spain, since of the 37 per cent of the total vote that he had received, 45 per cent had come from women and 30 from men. According to Massa, this can be explained because women “don't want to live in a society where organ sales or the free bearing of weapons are part of the value system”. He said that this is the century of women and argued that we are witnessing a global revolution in which Argentina has become a point of reference worldwide. He immediately went on to add that there was still a lot to do and mentioned —without providing much detail — two projects: one to reduce the gender pay gap and another to create a national care system (Televisión Pública). 

This maternalist approach, which equates women with mothers, assumes that they vote out of fear of what might happen to their children rather than out of conviction, ideology and/or political activism. Apart from being outdated and paternalistic, this view denies the existence of other identities within the feminist movement, such as trans, travesti, lesbian, intersex, and non-binary people, among others. 

Despite his limited appreciation for the diversity of the feminisms that exist in Argentina, Massa’s statement shows a partial recognition of feminists’ role as political actors. Moreover, it seeks to address the demand for an integrated public care system and effective policies to reduce the pay gap, which in 2022 was 27.7 per cent, according to official sources (Ministry of Economy, 2023). This opens up a new question: how much room will be left for feminist public policies if Massa is elected and his project of a national unity government is set in motion? Considering the austerity plans imposed by the International Monetary Fund, the future does not look bright. Yet, there is one reason for optimism that we should keep in mind: in 2018 legal abortion was still discussed in Parliament for the first time in history under the presidency of Mauricio Macri, when it seemed impossible to gain any new social rights. Though at that time the debate was partly lost (the bill passed in the Chamber of Deputies but not in the Senate), the feminist movement built the necessary social consensus that compelled the legislators to support the bill in December 2020, once the ruling party and the composition of the parliament had changed. 

The Feminist Movement: Our Agenda

Against the idea that an emphasis on feminist claims would mean lost votes or, in other words, that a mild, centrist strategy was better than radicalizing the campaign, feminisms did not stay quiet. The two months from the primary in August to the general election in October saw a call for an open feminist assembly on 22 August by the Ni Una Menos Collective, actions and demonstrations across the country on 28 September, International Safe Abortion Day, and, finally, the 36th Encuentro, a massive feminist event of truly historical significance, which took place in Bariloche-Furilofche from 14–16 October (official website: 36 Encuentro de Mujeres y Disidencias).

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Environmental conflicts and extractivism workshop. 36th Encuentro (Bariloche-Furilofche 13.10.23)

Environmental conflicts and extractivism Workshop. 36th Encuentro (Bariloche-Furilofche, 13.10.2023)

For those who have never heard of the Encuentro, it is a three-day feminist event where workshops, demonstrations and various political, cultural and artistic activities occur. To understand where the feminist agenda is heading in Argentina, it is vital to pay attention to the Encuentro’s opening session document, to the songs and slogans that resound the loudest at its demonstrations, to the most popular workshops, and to the conflicts regarding the organization of the whole event. 

Formerly the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres (National Conference of Women), the Encuentro dates back to 1986 and, but for the pandemic (2020 and 2021), has met regularly in different cities around the country. It was renamed in 2022 — after a fiercely contested process — to Encuentro Plurinacionales de Mujeres, Lesbianas, Travestis, Trans, Bisexuales, Intersexuales y No Binaries (Plurinational Meeting of Women, Lesbians, Travestis, and Trans, Bisexual, Intersex and Non-Binary People). The change reflects a profound transformation within the feminist movement that recognized the existence of multiple nations and, in so doing, brought to the forefront the colonial past and the genocide of indigenous people on which the Argentine state was founded. It is also a denouncement of the structural racism that nourishes and sustains the myth of white Argentina, one that some feminisms still needs to acknowledge and criticize. Secondly, adding other identities is more than just a matter of making them visible; it vindicates and does justice to the historical role that sexual dissidents have always had in constructing the feminist movement. 

A couple of figures can illustrate the magnitude and scale of the event in Bariloche-Furilofche: more than 70,000 people participated in 112 workshops (talleres), divided into 14 sub-topics ranging from sexual and gender identities, to land rights, activism, forms of struggle, work, education, families and relationships, sports and culture, and violence, just to name a few. After three sessions of debate (one on Saturday and two on Sunday), each workshop recorded its conclusions, which were either agreed upon by consensus or expressed different positions, as the case happened to be. Then, the moderator collected the written records, with the organizing committee gathering all the conclusions from every workshop and transcribing them into a single document. This way, we have a unique testimony that portrays our historical experience.

Many feminist networks and law-reform projects that have now came into force were imagined, debated, and born in those workshops across several successive editions of the Encuentro, such as the National Campaign for the Right to Free, Safe and Legal Abortion and the bill it sponsored, which was enacted into law in 2020. A more recent example is the Diana Sacayán–Lohana Berkins Travesti and Trans Job Quota Act (2021). Other examples are the law for mandatory education in gender and gender violence for all public workers and public officers (Ley Micaela, 2019) and one on economic reparations for children of carers who have died as victims of gender violence (Ley Brisa, 2018).

During this year’s meeting, one fundamental topic was the ecological conflicts that are taking place in different regions and the resistance to the extractivist policies and ongoing projects. This year, the Encuentro took place in Bariloche, one of the epicenters of the struggles for land being waged by indigenous women and other dissidents. The next edition will be in Jujuy, another heart of the struggle for indigenous land rights, currently resisting the recent reform of the provincial constitution that limits the right to protest by explicitly prohibiting roadblocks and simultaneously allows mechanisms to accelerate the use of lands that are currently in dispute with indigenous communities.

The need to question the extractivist structure that destroys land, pollutes waters, and affects our lives is growing into one of our movements’ fundamental demands. As in different regions of the world, feminized and dissident bodies are at the front lines of extraction and exploitation, but also of organization and resistance. Voices in favor of a plurinational anti-extractivist meeting were raised in one of the workshops on environmental conflicts, aiming to forge links between the multiple already existing networks and assemblies that focus on different concrete problems: agro-toxins and pesticides, mining, offshore oil exploration, deforestation, disruptions to watercourses, and waste management, among other issues. 

The election campaign was present to mind at all times, in all of the workshops, as well as in the slogans, songs, and demands. The Encuentro took place just one week before the general elections, and the stakes were clear. The chanted slogan Milei no es mi ley, a play on words based on the similar pronunciation of the far-right candidate's surname (Milei) and the Spanish for “my law” (mi ley), was meant to stress that the rights we have won through collective struggle are under direct attack. During the campaign, Milei announced that should he win, he would submit the abortion law to a plebiscite and suppress the mandatory Integral Sexual Education (ESI) subjects at all educational levels. Regardless of the legal impediments to such ideas, his anti-gender politics placed the active defense of social, human and labor rights in the spotlight of the anti-Milei campaign.

However, feminists’ positions on labor and social rights were not reduced to a defensive one. One example is the claim for recognition of unpaid labor at the local community level, which took the form of a law proposal developed by La Poderosa. It provides for a minimum wage, social security, health insurance, regular leave (holidays and parenthood), and retirement for the cooks in community kitchens who feed millions of people countrywide with state-provided food supplies. Another case is the national reparation law for trans and travesti people over 40 who have experienced institutional violence due to their gender identity. It is a demand for economical, symbolic and historical reparation from the Argentinean state for the years of systematic persecution, police violence, arbitrary detention, and human rights violations experienced during the last dictatorship and after the democratic resettlement in 1983, through police edicts used to criminalize trans and travesti people. The proposal, first presented in 2014, seeks to make true one of Lohana Berkins’ memorable statements: “Our revenge will be to get old.”

In short, the Encuentro is a moment to get together and organize. In this particular context, it was clear that the defense of the body-territory also meant the support of our present and future offensive struggles. It won’t be easy, considering that half the population chose an option on the right-wing spectrum. In times like this, it’s worth celebrating what we have achieved more than ever. To connect with our legacy of resistance, not in an empty nostalgic mood but in an inspiring way. So: long live the Encuentro and all the new spaces where we can strengthen the tools and strategies we have been weaving so far!

The Forthcoming Scenario: on Which Side?

Let’s return to the opening question. Yes, the feminist movement did play a role in the elections, not only because of the actions deployed between August and October but also because, since 2015, it has positioned itself as a massive movement capable of driving social changes. Perhaps, then, more important than the question of how much of an influence the feminist movement had on the partial political reversal, is the question of our role in the situation we will soon be facing. 

In the lead-up to the runoff, the feminist movements’ capacity to mobilize and politicize all possible spaces will be equally decisive. The Swifties kicked off with a statement calling on people not to vote for Milei that quickly made headlines. Following Taylor Swift, their call to be on the “right side of history” (Miss Americana, 2020) is similar to the well-known “Watch out for what side of the fuse you are on” (Patricio Rey y Sus Redonditos de Ricota, 1991) that some younger listeners heard for the first time in the voice of singer Wos (Canguro, 2019). In the end, there is no surprise here, because politicizing everything is precisely at the core of feminisms. 

Once the presidential race is over, choosing a side will be more critical than ever because it is well-known that the personal is political. Political, in a broader sense, implies power relations not limited to the electoral game. Thus, as a feminist movement, we can be on the side of doing more than turning tides; we can be the wave that questions and revolutionizes it all.

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